1 And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. 2 And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5 And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6 Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. 7 Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8 Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” 9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it. 12 Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.”13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” 15 So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth. 18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. 19 And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.
In all of life there are few things more beautiful, more touching, and more powerful than genuine reconciliation between aggrieved parties. Psalm 133 captures it so memorably when it says:
1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
God is in reconciliation. God is in the reconciliation business. Jesus comes for precisely this reason. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. When it comes to human reconciliation, it is hard to imagine a sweeter picture than the one we find in Genesis 33: the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau.
Reconciliation happens when we humble ourselves before each other.
The great moment has final come. Esau with his 400 men approach Jacob and his family and caravan. What will happen? The conflict had happened years and years ago by this point, but, to see Jacob’s fearful preparations for this meeting, it was obviously a major issue still. What will happen indeed?
1 And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. 2 And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5 And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6 Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. 7 Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down.
Esau approaches Jacob and Jacob approaches him in a most surprising manner. He bowed himself “to the ground” seven times “until he came near to his brother”! This is astonishing, to say the least. Bowing seven times “was common court ritual, as parallels in the Amarna letters and the Ugaritic documents (both from the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.) indicate.” You may be tempted to call this groveling. That would be uncharitable. Let us call this what it is: humility. Jacob humbles himself. Not only that, so does his family.
Humility is the door to reconciliation. Pride is the door to continued strife. We are tempted to pride, to digging in, to refusing to bend. We reject humility as the recourse of the weak. We are wrong to do so.
Let us remember, after all, that Jacob did indeed have a legitimate complaint against Esau. After all, Esau had sold Jacob the birthright, had he not? True, stealing the blessing was wrong as far as the theft and deception went. But Jacob was the child destined to lead, to be the blessed one. God had said that “the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). But Jacob humbled himself here. He did not offer his own complaint or try to justify his behavior. He knew that he had done wrong and hurt his brother.
So, too, Esau. He set aside his anger and welcomed Jacob as his long-lost brother. He weeps as he embraces Jacob! How beautiful!
Humility is the path to reconciliation.
The Japanese-American artist, Makoto Fujimura, has written of a fascinating architectural innovation in some of the tea rooms of Japan.
Rikyu gave an architectural structure to this refinement of hiddenness in his design of tea rooms…His most distinct contribution is in the creation of nijiri-guchi, a small square entry port designed for the guest to enter the tea house. Rikyu’s nijiri-guchi were so small that they forced everyone to bow and remove their swords in order to enter the tea room. Rikyu created a space dedicated to repose, communication and peace.
Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability. In other words, the only way to escape the violent cycle of the age of feudal struggles is to remove one’s sword; then, in safety, one can communicate truly. Beauty, one might add, is a gift given through this vulnerability. Beauty that integrates virtue, nature and religion can guide us into wisdom. This is exactly what Sen no Rikyu mastered, a phenomenon that overlapped, curiously, with the influx of Christians and the subsequent persecution of them.
This is truly powerful! To enter Rikyu’s tea rooms, one had to (1) bow and (2) remove one’s sword. In other words, Rikyu forced the inhabitants of his tea rooms to (1) humble themselves and (2) disarm.
This notion is foreign to the American psyche. We do not bow easily. But if we want to reconcile with those from whom we are estranged, we need to learn to do so. But might I remind us that part of the “mind” of Jesus that Paul calls upon us to have within us is this:
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Jesus reconciled us to God by humbling Himself. Can we not likewise humble ourselves before one another?
Reconciliation happens when we no longer demand reciprocal justice.
Notice as well that neither Esau nor Jacob demands reciprocal justice or demands anything of the other. They both make gestures of kindness. There is no sense of lex talionis here: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, humility allows them to set aside the demand for justice in their dispute.
8 Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” 9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.
15 So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.
Both men offer the other something. Jacob offers the lavish gifts he sent on ahead in the droves. Esau offers to leave men to assist his brother and his caravan. Both refuse the acts of kindness, not as passive aggressive maneuvering but rather to show that their acceptance of the other is complete as it is. No gifts are needed. Jacob does finally talk Esau into accepting his gift.
There are two interesting verbal nuances in our text and both involve verses 9 and 11. First, note that in verse 9 Esau says, “I have enough.” Jacob appears to say the same in verse 11: “I have enough.” In reality, however, what Jacob says would be better rendered “I have everything.” If you wish to read this uncharitably you might allege that Jacob is trying to “one-up” his brother. But I do not think this is what is happening. Such a reading would go against the whole feel of this chapter. Instead, it is very likely what Jacob is doing here is trying to gingerly, carefully, and somewhat awkwardly address the act of deception that led to their great division. “I have everything” = “Esau, we both know I have the blessing and your birthright and everything. Please let me show you this kindness now.” Again, this is careful and, I believe, an effort at addressing past wrongs.
Secondly, Robert Alter notes that Jacob’s “accept my blessing” in verse 11 “brilliant echoes a phrase Jacob could not have actually heard, which Esau pronounced to their father two decades earlier: ‘he’s taken my blessing’ (27:36). In offering tribute, Jacob is making restitution for his primal theft, unwittingly using language that confirms the act of restitution.”
These are helpful insights and they give a clue as to the depths of the men’s sincere desire to reconcile. What is notably absent, however, is any demand for justice, for a pound of flesh, for getting what one deserves.
At this point I want to offer what I believe is a needed caveat. I am speaking here of the kinds of conflicts reflected in our narrative: family conflicts, inheritance conflicts, the kinds of conflicts that are murky, that have fault on each side in most cases. I am not saying that justice should never be sought in human conflicts. That would be foolish. I would never look, for instance, at a woman who has been physically abused and say to her, “Just set aside your desire for justice.” No. All of society should seek justice with her. Her attacker may be forgiven, but let him be forgiven from within the walls of a prison where he can no longer hurt vulnerable people with violence. I would never say to a child who has been abused and violated that they should set aside the desire for justice. Once again, the nature of such a crime should lead us all to demand justice! Crimes against the vulnerable, acts of violence, acts of destruction: a just society seeks justice before a just God. But family disputes that lead to squabbles and then feuds, hurt feelings that are allowed to fester until they blossom into the putrid flower of bitterness, disputes over who got more of an inheritance: these kinds of things must at some point be set aside by those involved. The tragedy of a broken relationship must have more weight to us than the tragedy of our hurt feelings or our perception that we have been wronged.
I am speaking most likely of the majority of our familial and relational and vocational conflicts: those exhausting skirmishes that can morph into full-blown feuds, those mirky pitched battles in which both sides are a little bit guilty and a little bit innocent. I am speaking, in other words, of Jacob and Esau and of us when we find ourselves in the same situation.
At such times you have two choices: (a) dig in and demand restitution along the lines that you perceive it or (b) decide to humble yourself and let it go. “But,” you might ask, “should we not deal with reality and resolve issues?” Of course we should! But consider: you have a much better chance of resolving issues in the context of a restored relationship and from a posture of humility than you do from a posture of antagonism and in the context of strife. In other words, time may open the door to healing. Consider again how carefully Jacob hints at his actions that hurt Esau: “I have everything.” To set aside the need for justice is not to abandon hope for eventual justice. Rather, to set aside the need for reciprocal justice is to create a relational arena in which, in time, you and the other might move toward it together, naturally and organically. And, in a posture of humility with open hands, you both may come to see how you have been wrong and how you have been right. More than likely, you may both come to realize that the old questions just do not matter much anymore to you.
Justice that grows from the soil of love is always purer than that which is demanded and scornfully given. See our brothers, Jacob and Esau! See how they try to give gifts and acts of kindness to each other! See how they no longer are driven by anger and fear! See how to love each other is enough!
Humble yourself. Stop obsessing over getting what you think you are due!
Reconciliation happens when we bring the conflict into the presence of the reconciling God.
Notice, too, how often Jacob mentions God in his dealings with Esau.
5 And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”
10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.
20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.
Jacob’s response is God-saturated and his act of constructing an altar reveals that this is where his heart truly is. I am not trying to diminish Esau’s kindness and grace in this episode, by the way. This chapter is a good look for Esau! But notice that Jacob is consistently speaking to his brother of God. And this only makes sense, for God is a reconciling God. The gospel is simply the good news of God’s reconciling activity in and through the person of Jesus. The church is a reconciliation agency as it proclaims the good news and points men and women and boys and girls to God in Christ.
In this regard, Genesis 33 prepares the way powerfully for Paul’s amazing statement about reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This is, again, an amazing passage and one worthy of very careful consideration. Through Christ’s payment on the cross and His defeat of sin, death, and hell in the resurrection, He has reconciled us to God. Sinful humanity has been reconciled to a perfectly holy and just and good God because Christ hung between heaven and earth and made the way possible. For humanity, He paid the price for our sins, a price we never could have paid. For the Father, He, Christ, met the Father’s just demand for satisfaction by dying as the spotless Lamb of God in atonement for our sins. Jesus did, therefore, what humanity needed and what God required.
The result? Those who give their lives to Jesus are now “a new creation” (v.17). We have been resurrected by grace through faith out of the old life of sin and death and can now walk anew with Jesus. Collectively, the church (i.e., “us” v.18) has been given “the ministry of reconciliation” (v.18). That is, we now play a part in the reconciling of lost humanity to a holy God through gospel proclamation (i.e., “the message of reconciliation” v.19). and enactment as we are salt and light in the world. Christ now works through His body, the church, to call lost humanity into the reconciliation that He himself has wrought for us. This means that the church is an “ambassador” (v.20) with a message from her King for all the world: “You too can be reconciled to God!” Or, as Paul put it: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” (v.20).
What all of this means is that the imperative for followers of Jesus to practice reconciliation in their own relationships is heightened dramatically! And this is because of one simple question: How can you and I be effective agents of reconciliation between lost humanity and a holy God if we ourselves are not acting as agents of reconciliation and striving for reconciliation in the lesser areas of our own personal squabbles and conflicts? If we will not allow Jesus to heal our strife over lesser issues with other believers then why on earth would lost people believe our message about reconciliation between them and God? And, indeed, this is what we see today: a church whose message is stymied by a lack of application in her own life of the principles of her own message!
Church, much is at stake in whether or not we attempt to reconcile with one another! The world is watching…closely! If the reconciling Jesus is truly Lord should His reconciling work not be evident in our own lives? If a bridge has been built and a door opened so that rebellious humanity can come to God can a bridge and door not be built in your life and mine when conflicts arise?
A final question: If Jacob and Esau can demonstrate this kind of grace and mercy and forgiveness before the advent of Christ, can we not demonstrate the same and more on this side of the empty tomb?
Ah, follower of Jesus, listen: the first mission field before you is the field containing your own family and friends. If this field is littered with broken relationships that you are too proud to seek to mend, then how can you expect to be effective in the wider fields that remain white unto harvest (John 4:35).
Be reconciled! Work for peace! Move toward one another with mercy and humility and love! Why? Because this is exactly what Christ has done for us!
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.105n31; Speiser, p.124n3.
 Fujimura, Makoto. Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Kindle Locations 2042-2053). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.105n31; Speiser, p.125n11.